In a 2011 article in Jacobin magazine, the Australian political economist Mike Beggs accuses the defenders of ‘orthodox’ Marxist economic theory of creating a ‘zombie Marx’. What matters, Beggs seems to suggest, is not really whether this or that economic theory is correct in its foundations, about which the neoclassical economists of today’s orthodoxy are just as dogmatic as the Marxists are about theirs. Rather, the significance of economic ideas rests in the practice. This practice consists of what he, citing David Harvey, calls “casual empiricism”: “for example, in analyzing the relationship between the US federal government’s deficit and long term interest rates.” The search for foundationalism, being able to found any given economic finding along such empirical or econometric lines on a well-defined and general theory, is the province of a rigid minority of neoclassical economists, and has little to do with the everyday practice of economics. Or so Beggs would have us believe.
He then goes on to conclude from this that it is the Marxists who have a problem, not the neoclassical economists. Unlike their mainstream neoclassical counterparts, Beggs suggests, the Marxist economists have a tendency to prefer ‘going back to the text’ to advancing economic knowledge, and this process has to do with the political commitments of Marxism outside the mainstream. Essentially, Beggs argues that Marxism as a rival school of thought in economics fails, and must fail, precisely because it is not mainstream and does not reconstruct itself along the lines of the methods of the mainstream: “The pursuit of a separate system of economics as something wholly other from mainstream economics isolates us from the political and ideological space where these things take place: better, instead, to fight from the inside, to make clear the social and political content of the categories.” Continue reading “Zombifying Marx”
One of the centerpieces of Marxist theorizing about history, that philosophy of history generally known as ‘historical materialism’, is the succession of modes of production. Each mode of production is essentially a more or less integrated totality of social relations, one that has a stability and continuity determined by its particular division of labor and techniques of production. Each is reproduced on the basis of the ‘laws of motion’ of that particular division of labor and that particular set of technologies, never mind the mental conceptions of society and the role of each functional part within it that form such an essential part of the continuity and stability the material process of social reproduction has.
The classic periodization of history according to this model in Marx’s own day was the succession from savagery (or ‘primitive communism’) to ancient society, feudalism, and then capitalism, with the non-European societies making a detour via the ‘Asiatic mode of production’. After a century and a half of historical analysis and refinement, little of this edifice is now standing. But the two most studied modes of production are perhaps also the most generally accepted and most stable concepts: feudalism and capitalism. But how to understand these? For capitalism, one need look no further than Capital itself and the vast literature that has followed in its wake. Feudalism, on the other hand, is much less well described in its own characteristics – the central point of contention in the literature has been the debate of transition from feudalism to capitalism, much less describing feudalism itself with anything like the rigour of Marx’s masterpiece on capitalism.
Nonetheless, the game Dwarf Fortress is amenable to a Marxist analysis precisely by understanding its relationship to the central characteristics of the feudal mode of production.(1) This can be grasped by looking at the main dynamics of the game: the division of labor, the reproduction of dwarven society, the economic system and trade, and their integration. The first characteristic is the organization of dwarven labor. Starting out with a small exploratory team of settlers, one takes a particular section of the world that is more or less taken as terra nullius and makes it amenable to dwarven homesteading and regular life. This is the beginning of every game in Dwarf Fortress (assuming fortress mode), and it already gives a clear indication of the nature of social expansion under feudalism. The fact of the low population density of the world allowing such expansion is one such observation, but more important is the purpose of settlement itself. Continue reading “Dwarf Fortress: A Marxist Analysis”
The annals of Marxist political economy, c.q. the critique thereof, show a great deal of abstruse, opaque, and downright remote argumentation about minutiae. Much of this can be blamed on the persistent habit of Marxist arguments to take the form of disputes about the ‘true Marx’, about what Marx ‘really said’, rather than being arguments on the merits of theories in their own right. This substitution of philology and exegesis for direct debate cannot fail to make already quite abstract arguments even more confusing and distant from everyday political concerns, and thereby even less accessible to the average activist or intellectual interested in developments in Marxist theory. That’s deplorable, and it is incumbent on all those concerned to end this sorry tradition.
That said, the latest round of such argumentation is that between Michael Heinrich and Andrew Kliman and his collaborators on the nature and meaning of the ‘law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall’.(1) Heinrich is the main exponent of a German school of interpretation of Marx, known as the Neue Marxlektüre, that is heavily philological. Various members of this school including Heinrich himself are involved in the project of the new scientific complete editions of Marx and Engels’ works in German (and the other original languages), known as MEGA2, which perhaps furthers this exegetic mindset. Kliman and his colleagues, on the other hand, are more prominent in the Anglosphere and represent a particular school of Marxist political economy there, best known for developing a powerful critique of prevailing assumptions about the ‘transformation problem’ that has obstructed Marxist economic thinking for so long. This approach, known as TSSI, has made quite an impact and has contributed to clearing the way for actually moving ahead with more novel and empirical work in Marxist economics, in lieu of the repetition of moves that had been the norm for most of the 20th century. Continue reading “Kliman vs Heinrich: An Exercise in Marxology”
One of the core principles of scientific theory is that all theory is specific and limited in its domain. A theory which attempts to explain everything, explains nothing. Equally, the mere observation that ‘everything depends on everything else’ is, while undoubtedly true, useless for scientific inquiry – the virtue rests in identifying the specific and causal connections where possible, or at the very least a model or theory that can explain some subset of the totality of connections in a way that helps us solve problems. To point this out may seem banal, but Richard Wolff and Stephen Resnick would have done well to keep it in mind when writing their book, Contending Economic Theories: Neoclassical, Keynesian, and Marxian. As the name implies, this is a work of comparative economic theory, presenting the elementary (say, undergraduate level) versions of each of the theories in a way that allows novices in economics to compare and contrast their methods and approaches.
Such a book is a great idea, as there is a real shortage of clear and accessible comparative material that gives an overview of the different theoretical conceptions and methodological justifications that exist in economics, both orthodox and heterodox – not least because the interaction between method and content is perhaps nowhere as important as in that discipline. Moreover, as Marxist economists of some recent popular renown – at least in the case of Richard Wolff, as Stephen Resnick sadly died earlier this year – you’d expect the authors’ heterodox view of economic theory to make such a comparison more fair and useful than it would be if undertaken by an orthodox neoclassical historian of economics. Continue reading “Book Review: Wolff & Resnick, “Contending Economic Theories””
The opposition to austerity worldwide has been much strengthened by the loss of academic prestige incurred by the austerity camp in the field of economics. Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, both prominent neoclassical economists at Harvard University, were revealed to have made serious data errors in their influential paper on the history of public debt and its relation to economic growth. In this paper, “Growth in a Time of Debt”, the authors had argued that when “gross external debt reaches 60 percent of GDP”, a country’s annual growth declined by two percent, and “for levels of external debt in excess of 90 percent” GDP growth was “roughly cut in half.”(1) This has been widely seen as a major intellectual support for the austerity drive worldwide, and therefore the denouement of this paper has had a considerable impact. Not only did the paper leave out important data, but it also contained simple errors in spreadsheet calculation. This is all the more intriguing, and delicious for the press, because the counter-article’s co-author Thomas Herndon is still a graduate student, whereas Rogoff is one of the world’s most eminent neoclassical macroeconomists. Continue reading “The Many Forms of Kenneth Rogoff: A Study in Neoclassical Economics Today”